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In 1809 the western part of the Indiana Territory, created in 1800, was separated to form the Illinois Territory. This division left Vincennes, the capitol of the Indiana Territory and one of the oldest European settlements in the region, on the far western side of the territory. In 1813, the seat of territorial government was moved to the town of Corydon, which had been laid out in 1808. Located 25 miles west of Louisville, Kentucky, Corydon was closer to the center of the Indiana Territory.
In 1811, construction began on a new Harrison County Courthouse at Corydon to replace a temporary log structure. A site at the center of town was acquired by the county in 1812 and a stone building was erected between 1814 and 1816 by local stonemason Dennis Pennington and Virginia carpenter John Smith. When Indiana became a state in 1816, the completed courthouse was put into service as the first Indiana State Capitol. The building contained the only public assembly space in Corydon and doubled as a public hall and courthouse during this period. In 1821, a new capital city, Indianapolis, was laid out at the center of the state and the seat of government relocated from Corydon in 1825.
Built with limestone from a nearby quarry, the Corydon Capitol was constructed as a simple version of the then popular Federal style. The forty-foot-square, two-story building has a hipped roof that rises to an octagonal cupola. The building originally featured a finial formed as a scale and balance on the top of the roof—the symbol of justice representative of the original use of the building. The balance and scales were removed in 1833 and replaced with a large bell hung in the cupola. The exposed limestone exterior of the building is not dressed, and features only stones that were cut roughly square; the walls are two feet thick. The foundation was placed three feet into the ground, and consists of a two-and-a-half-foot-thick limestone slab. Estimates approximate the original cost of the building at $3,000.
The first floor features an open plan, and was used for the House of Representatives. The lower room features a fifteen-foot ceiling height, and was built with stone flagging and structural wood supports hewn from local virgin forests. The upper floor features a ten-foot ceiling height and was originally used to house the state Supreme Court and the State Senate. Two large fireplaces were installed in both the upper and lower floors.
When the state capitol of Indiana moved to Indianapolis in 1825, the Corydon Capitol returned to use as the Harrison County Courthouse. The building’s form served as a precedent for Indiana’s first generation of county courthouses built between 1816 and the late 1830s, a form later historians would term “coffee mill.” The area around the public square continued to develop as the center of a small county seat. The community grew slowly, reaching a population of 500 in the 1850s, 1,000 in the 1890s, and 3,000 in the 2000s.
The Corydon Capitol was remodeled in 1873, which included modifying window openings, closing off the old fireplaces, covering the stone floor with a new wood floor, and adjusting the exterior grade. A new building was erected behind it in 1882. A year after the Indiana State Centennial celebration in 1916, the Corydon Capitol was purchased by the State of Indiana to be preserved as a memorial of the territorial days and early statehood.
In 1929–1930, a new Harrison County Courthouse was built. At this time, the 1882 structure was demolished and the Corydon Capitol underwent a Colonial Revival restoration following best practices of the era. The floor level was restored, and the fireplaces were returned to their Federal proportions. The original mantels were located and reinstalled, as was the original fanlight above the entry door. Window openings and the entry door were restored to their historic appearance. Since the cupola of the building had never been fully documented, a new cupola was modeled after that of a contemporary courthouse in Ohio. Following this restoration, the Corydon Capitol opened to the public and has served as a state historic site ever since.
In preparation for Indiana’s 2016 Bicentennial Celebration, the Corydon Capitol was rehabilitated in 2015. The project included the alteration of the existing rock-slab walkway to follow ADA compliance as well as electrical repairs, the installation of a new drainage system, and three rain gardens to manage stormwater.
Coleman, Christopher B. “Restoration of the Capitol at Corydon.” Indiana Magazine of History30, no. 3 (September 1934): 255-258.
Gadski, Mary Ellen, “Corydon Historic District Boundary Increase,” Harrison County, Indiana. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1988. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Griffin, Frederick Porter, “Corydon Historic District,” Harrison County, Indiana. National Register of Historic Places Inventory–Nomination Form, 1972. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Harrison County. Interim Report, Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. Indianapolis: n.p., 1987.
Stewart, Alan. “State plans renovation of Corydon square as a prelude to Indiana Bicentennial.” Indiana Economic Digest, August 12, 2014.
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